Ancient 550m-year-old coral reef discovered on the plains of Namibia, formed by the first animals with skeletons

 

Science Editor

An ancient coral-like reef that formed in a primeval shallow sea nearly 550 million years ago has been discovered on what is now the dry scrubland of Namibia in southern Africa, scientists said.

The fossilised reef was formed by the first known animals with skeletons and may mark a critical moment in the evolution of life when marine organisms had to defend themselves against rapacious predators with a taste for soft flesh.

Scientists said that the reef was built over many years by long-extinct marine creatures which gradually formed a reef similar to the way coral reefs are made today.

It is the oldest known fossilised reef in the world, according to the journal Science. Dating techniques show that the reef was alive before the famous “Cambrian Explosion” about 542 million years ago, when multicellular life evolved dramatically into many diverse types, some of which are the ancestors of today’s main groups of animals, said Professor Rachel Wood of Edinburgh University, who led the study.

“It is possible to date the reef from a layer of volcanic ash found just above it. Our best guess is that the reef was alive about 548 million years ago, which makes it the oldest to date, although something may still come out that is even older,” Professor Wood said.

The reef was made of filter-feeding marine animals called Cloudina which grew to about 15cm long and about 8mm wide. They secreted successive cone-like external skeletons in formations that look like stacked-up ice-cream cones, with each Cloudina living in the top “cone” furthest from the reef, she said.

It was thought that life on earth remained relatively simple until the Cambrian Explosion. But the discovery of complex, multicellular animals with external skeletons living on a reef made of their dead skeletons suggests that life before the Cambrian was already in an intense struggle for existence.

“The critical thing is that the Cambrian Explosion was a pretty critical event. It established that animals were responding to complicated ecological pressures and yet here we have a reef system that shows this was going on much earlier than we thought,” Professor Wood said.

“Modern reefs are major centres of biodiversity with sophisticated ecosystems. Animals like corals build reefs to defend against predators and competitors. We have found that animals were building reefs even before the evolution of complex animal life, suggesting that there must have been selective pressures in the Precambrian Period that we have get to understand,” she said.

An analysis of the reef shows that the skeletal structures were cemented together and pointing in the same direction, which was probably towards the ocean currents carrying the floating items of food that the filter feeders lived on.

“This animal was clearly responding to some ecological pressure in the environment such as competition for space or predators. It possibly pushes the roots of the Cambrian Explosion even further back in time,” Professor Wood said.

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